I had been travelling to New Zealand for a few years before deciding to move there permanently. Like many, I was struck by the incredible scenery, the friendly people, and the clean environment. In short, it’s perfect. A paradise even.
One of the more popular ways to see this amazing country is by travelling in a van and sleeping in it, or by car and using a tent. You’ll often hear this referred to as ‘freedom camping’.
WHAT EXACTLY IS FREEDOM CAMPING?
In New Zealand, the use of vans and car camping has a long history going back decades. And in recent years, its grown extremely popular with the #vanlife movement and social media.
Freedom camping is the act of camping on public land outside of a recognised campground. Put simply, you are camping for free. The freedom camping definition does not include the camping done while on hikes- that is different and isn't covered here.
But unlike the brief description above, it is a little more complicated and there are some restrictions in place that you need to be aware of before you go camping anywhere.
8 Must Have Apps for a New Zealand Adventure Trip!
12 Things Vanlife Will Do to You!
WHERE CAN YOU FREEDOM CAMP IN NEW ZEALAND?
The easiest way to decide on your camping options is to know whether your vehicle is self contained or not.
► When you have a self contained vehicle.
If you have a self contained vehicle, you will have the blue certification sticker and certificate of self containment to go along with it. Being self contained means complying with the latest regulation: NZS 5465:2001.
With this certification, you can camp almost anywhere and by following each councils bylaws on freedom camping. However, many councils have restrictions in place. Most town centres are off limits, as are popular day use areas. To find out where to camp, head down to the resources section below for the mobile apps and websites you need.
► When you have a NON self contained vehicle.
If you do not have a self contained vehicle or are camping in your tent, you will only be allowed to camp in places that allow freedom camping with non self contained means.
Your options will be limited, with only a handful of areas to camp around the country. And each year, the number of available free campsites is being reduced. This can make it more challenging to have a camping holiday with free accommodation. Many people without self contained vehicles will often stay in paid campgrounds. And the few campsites that are free are often at full capacity, which may mean you do not have a spot when you arrive.
Alternatives to freedom camping if you cannot freedom camp:
► DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites range from $5-15 per night. Almost all have toilets (flushing or drop toilets) but only a few have showers and kitchens.
► Holiday Parks and private campgrounds $5-40 per night. They usually have all facilities and are quite nice to stay at.
WHY IS FREEDOM CAMPING AT RISK?
If you aren’t aware of the issues yet, you will quickly come to hear of them when you arrive or start your camping trip.
In short: freedom camping is at risk from being banned or restricted severely by the few who spoil it for the rest.
How? By people dumping waste, littering and going to the toilet in public spaces.
This has been on the rise for many years and is only going to complicate the issues further with the increasing numbers of visitors coming each year.
It’s going to come down to the government to set the system up to ensure freedom camping continues and visitors respecting the rules and environment so that freedom camping is there for many more to enjoy.
So how you choose to behave on your trip is going to influence a countries decision on freedom camping for many years to come. Do it right!
SELF CONTAINED VS NON SELF CONTAINED
This is the big question many visitors have when arriving and deciding to camp around the country.
Should I go self contained or not?
Usually, self contained vehicles cost far more than non self contained ones. It is not uncommon to see a 20-40% price increase on a vehicle with self contained certification compared to one without. Rentals are usually much higher as well with surcharges on self contained vans.
You will need to do the calculations on whether this extra amount is worth it, or whether it is better staying in campgrounds. The freedom you have with a self contained vehicle can be worth it if you plan on accessing areas far away from any paid campgrounds or are travelling for a few months or more.
In the end it is your choice of how you choose to travel in New Zealand that will influence your decision. Either way, you will need to stay flexible in your plans, and certainly take freedom camping seriously by leaving no trace.
CAN I GET THE SELF CONTAINED CERTIFICATION?
Yes you can! With a little bit of work for those with basic hands on skills, its easily done.
The two organisations that can do the certification are NZMCA and All Points Camping. While NZMCA will no longer certify some models of vans, All Points will. For some more information on van fit-outs, visit BEDVANZ who also sell and buy vans and do fit-outs. It is often much easier to get a company like BEDVANZ to do it rather than stressing.
HOW TO RESPONSIBLY CAMP ON YOUR TRIP TO NEW ZEALAND
With freedom camping becoming an increasingly contentious issue, there is now a push to rename it to something new, something more appropriate and invoking the correct response to its name:
By camping responsibly, we will not only keep New Zealand beautiful, we will ensure the tradition of camping almost anywhere can keep going.
The most important rules to responsible freedom camping are these:
◘ Do not litter and dispose of ALL your rubbish in the bin.
◘ Do not go to the toilet anywhere you want. Use your on-board toilet if you are self contained OR use the nearest public toilet. Do not poo in the bush. You can buy cornstarch bags to go in and dispose of them in the drop toilets if you wish. This is done in back country travel anyway.
◘ Respect local fire laws. You cannot make fires anywhere you want!
◘ Do not wash yourself or your dishes in the waterways! Chemicals pollute and harm the wildlife!
◘ Check local laws before you camp! Do not camp on private ground!
And here is some extra freedom camping etiquette to follow:
◘ Don’t be noisy or disrespectful. Pretty obvious I think, no one wants to hear your party carry on into the night.
◘ Keep your camping area clean, pick up any rubbish you find even if its not yours. The only way to improve the negative image left by those few who wrecked it is by improving it!
◘ Organise your van or vehicle away from the public. I’ve seen many who decide the shopping centre car park is the place to do a full clean-out of their van, with the contents piled in the next car parks. Please don’t do this!
◘ Call out other campers if they don’t follow the rules. They are hurting you directly with your future ability to camp.
◘ Don’t shower nude for everyone to see. It’s not something done in New Zealand. Use a shower tent or use public showers. This is again affecting the negative image of freedom campers.
Not following the important rules does carry consequences!
A $200 instant fine applies to any illegal camping. Wheel clamping is also in effect in some districts and on the rise in others. Arguing with the council officer giving the fine, or refusing to provide information is also an offence and carries up to $5000 in penalties.
Dumping waste illegally can cost you up to $10,000. Use bins or dumping stations including for your grey and black water waste.
How likely is it to get caught illegally freedom camping? Very likely in some areas. Its a small country and councils know the spots that are preferred for freedom camping illegally.
Many councils also now employ full time staff on night shifts to hand out fines. And each time they do, the person responsible is hurting the future of freedom camping. Please don’t be that person. Camp responsibly.
RESOURCES FOR YOUR TRIP
To ensure you have a great trip while camping, make sure to use all the following resources:
► Up to date information on freedom camping:
► Leave no trace principles:
► Find out where you can camp:
Campermate App (Android + Apple)
► More camping information from local councils:
(Use the map to find which local council area you are in, then look up that councils laws on freedom camping)
► Get other useful apps:
8 Must Have Apps for a NZ Adventure Trip!
Hopefully with the continued support of everyone, we can all enjoy camping in the amazing country of New Zealand for many years to come!
Have any questions about freedom camping in New Zealand or living in a van? Just head to the CONTACT page and send me an email!
This posts information is current as of winter 2018. Any changes to freedom camping policy will be updated when possible.